Product Type: Bethesda Xbox 360 games
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More than just dragons
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360)
Member Name: hogsflesh
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360)
Advantages: Immense, well realised, mostly well done
Disadvantages: A bit too easy, and lots of glitches
Oof. Rarely have I been so lost in a game. This took away about 70 hours of my life, and is perhaps the most addictive thing I've played since Baldur's Gate 2 about ten years ago.
It's a fantasy RPG based in the usual Tolkein-esque world of elves and dragons and such. It's the fifth game in the series, but I don't think you'd need to have played the previous games to play this one. I played Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion back in the day, but found it a bit plodding, so gave up on it. For that reason, I was a reluctant to embark on Skyrim, but once I did, and I'd got past the initial 'learning new things' awkwardness that you have to get past with every game, I was well and truly hooked.
You play a character, and in the usual fashion you can choose race and sex. To be honest, apart from some bonus powers, these decisions mean very little. Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the game is that your protagonist has no voice, no personality. This feels odd after Mass Effect, in which your character was fully voiced and had at least a modicum of personality. Further, although you can befriend people and even have someone following you around to help you out, there are no character arcs for anyone. This feels like a bit of a backward step after all the effort Bioware and others have put into making their games more compelling from a character and story point of view.
But that's the only thing about this game I didn't like, and cutting back on the detailed content has presumably allowed for more other stuff to be shoved in. As long as you're happy with the fact that your character is effectively a tailor's dummy with a sword, there's plenty to love about Skyrim.
It's an open world game with a number of plots you can follow or ignore, depending entirely on your own whims. The main plot has something to do with dragons - they're attacking settlements and have to be stopped. Inevitably, the game signposts you towards this main plot from very early on (the game actually begins with a dragon attack which you have to escape). But I think I'd played for about 50 hours before I bothered to pursue that plot with any real intent.
Before that, you can wander freely through what is a huge world, mostly rather mountainous countryside with the odd city, village or other settlement thrown in. There are caves to explore and dungeons to fight your way through and standing stones to have fun with. The world itself looks absolutely lovely. There's something immensely appealing about just running through this fertile countryside, looking for wolves or bandits or dragons to kill. There are giants in the game, which leave you alone for the most part, but their huge bonfires, seen from a distance at night, are somehow hauntingly beautiful. Swimming underwater looks really nice, too, although if you do it for too long you'll drown (just like in real life!).The graphics are generally very good, although I noticed that when it rains you don't get little splashes as the droplets hit rivers or lakes.
The way the map works is particularly ingenious. You can only fast travel to places you have already been. New places - landmarks, farms, cities, whatever, have to be unlocked by you running round and finding them. This is great fun - like most RPGs, this one works best as a collecting game, and it really taps into that mentality when it comes to exploring the world and filling in the blank spaces on the map.
There are a variety of guilds and brotherhoods you can join - warriors, assassins, thieves, mages, the usual kind of thing - and each has its own quite lengthy storyline. Some of these do go on a bit too long. I spent far more time with the thieves and mages than I'd wanted to. But they lead to a wide variety of missions, most of which are fun. For once, this is a game that lets you be properly evil - mostly RPGs are heavily skewed toward you being a good person even if you have to pick a pocket or two. In Skyrim, by contrast, as well as assassinating any number of entirely blameless citizens with no consequences, I also managed to join a cannibal sect and was able to regenerate health by eating the corpses of my victims. That is quality evil, and not something you'd have got away with in Baldur's Gate.
Combat, magic etc are well realized for the most part, although there are a few small glitches. While the lockpicking in Oblivion was irritating and no fun at all, they've managed to make it a bit more agreeable in Skyrim, although I'd still sigh inwardly when I found myself having to try to unlock a tough door. But then there are always powers I underuse. I'm very much a 'go around with a sword and shield twatting people' player when it comes to these things, so I never really use magic or thieving to their full potential. Although I did a fair bit of blacksmithing, I hardly ever ventured into an alchemy lab (too much like home economics for me) and I stopped picking flowers when my flatmate poured scorn on a game where collecting heather was seen as a virtue.
It has good villains to fight against, and actually has the virtue of being quite scary. Creeping round caves trying to sneak up on the tougher villains had me tense like no game has since probably the early Medal of Honor games. The ambience in caves and dungeons is definitely spooky, even if they do get a bit samey after a while. Refreshingly the giant spiders you tangle with actually look like spiders (take note, Dragon Age, it can be done!). And the Falmer, evil subterranean elves who are basically the monsters from The Descent with armour on, are actually alarming. The difficulty is perhaps a little on the easy side, at least at normal level; I didn't find myself having to restart all that often, although saving frequently is still a good idea (I probably fell off cliffs more often than I got killed by monsters). Even dragons are pretty easy to kill.
Racking up the achievements is also pretty easy - I got 1000G without really trying too hard. I'm not sure if it's something I would replay, having done it once. There are options that would make another play through different, but I don't think I can be bothered. The game itself doesn't end when you finish the final mission, and I daresay I could run around forever doing identical side quests if I so desired.
There's blood when you hit enemies, but little really nasty gore. You can decapitate your foes if you're lucky, but even cannibalism is fairly restrained. There's no sex at all, which is a tad disappointing in this day and age. There should surely at least be prostitutes in taverns, but no. Even when my character got married she didn't noticeably get laid. I'm not entirely sure why this has a 15 certificate at all - possibly because it allows same sex marriage, and we all know how much that upsets a certain type of person.
It's not really a game for big moments. In fact, there are hardly any cut scenes at all. It's a lot of quite small moments that add up to something huge. The one bit that really stays with me is when I was hiding in a sarcophagus when the desiccated corpse inside it started glowing and talking to me - that scared the dickens out of me. The lack of cutscenes is welcome in some ways, but frustrating in others. There are too many times when you have to slowly follow another character around as they laboriously explain things to you, and there aren't really enough opportunities to skip dialogue. The voice acting is generally good, and the cast includes Max von Sydow and Christopher Plummer. The music is unintrusive, but there are a couple of rather lovely tunes, one of which perfectly accompanies running around through the snow at night, which I did a lot of.
There are a few problems. The game has a tonne of glitches, even almost a year after release, which is annoying. I fell through the scenery a couple of times, and dialogue refused to initiate a few other times. Another annoyance was that my housecarl (i.e. bodyguard-cum-packhorse), Lydia, kept standing in doorways I was trying to get through, effectively blocking me in. She also kept coughing. I didn't marry her when given the opportunity. Take that, Lydia. Loading times are often extremely long, even with the game installed to my Xbox's harddrive. And it sometimes lags badly, especially in scenes where there are lots of baddies attacking you at once. It also crashed six or seven times while loading, which doesn't happen on other games.
But I can live with all that. This is a tremendous, immersive game that rarely bores and kept me interested for the two weeks or however long that I was playing it. If it had just been a little more challenging, and had fewer silly little glitches, it would be a classic. As it is, it's just very good.
Summary: An immersive fantasy RPG